It's a Lot Easier to Make Friends Outside of America
Maybe it's just us being nomads, but our experience overseas couldn't be more different than the way we lived back in America.
One of the biggest misconceptions about being a digital nomad is that we’re forever on vacation or holiday. We do often live in exotic locations, but there are downsides too. Our lives aren’t that romantic.
Or are they?
The fact is, we've been living in Istanbul three and a half weeks, and we've gone out to dinner with friends, or been to dinner parties, nine times. Our dining companions have been a mix of nomads, long-term expats, locals, and some repeats. We didn't know any of these people a month ago, except two online acquaintances.
This sounds like a humblebrag, except when we lived in Seattle, people almost never invited us to dinner.
We had a circle of close friends that we saw regularly, but honestly, we got very tired of extending invitations to others that weren’t reciprocated. And the older we got, as people our age started having kids, the less we saw of even our close friends.
Back then, we’d started to think: Is it us? Are we not as charming as we think?
But it turns out it wasn’t us. A large part of it was America.
Here is why I think our social lives have become so wildly different away from our home country.
Meals are a more important part of most foreign cultures.
In most of the countries we visit, meals are celebrated — a very important part of the day. Here in Istanbul, there are probably 100 cafes or restaurants within 100 meters of our apartment. Maybe more!
In countries other than America, most people have a much smaller personal space: a small house filled with several generations, or a tiny apartment shared by lots of people. Virtually no one lives — or eats! — alone.
This used to seem strange to us. But now we understand that while the personal spaces are small, the public spaces are large — and everywhere. Meanwhile, here in Istanbul, the vast, seamless, insanely efficient subway, trolley, bus, and ferry system gets you across a massive city of 15 million people in thirty minutes or less. You can even pay for a taxi with your transit card!
In America, public spaces are typically an afterthought, and they can usually only be reached by car. Public spaces are for “special occasions” — the Big Night Out. Not an integral part of your day, because, my God, who wants to deal with that insane traffic?
Likewise, in America, "dinner parties" and "eating out with friends" are a big deal. But because they're such a big deal, people don't do them very often.
In other countries, getting together is a smaller deal, which ironically makes it a bigger deal, because people do it all the time. Likewise, there’s much less pressure to make every meal an EVENT. Sometimes you wrap up early, no hard feelings.
America is much more of a drive-through, wolf-it-down, eat-it-alone-in-front-of-your-media-screen kinda country. Which is ironic, because all the beloved TV shows we’re watching on those screens, like Friends and Sex and the City, lionize a friend-centric lifestyle that very few Americans actually live.
The American Way is all the direct result of our economics, traditions, and values.
I think also it’s a big part of the reason America is experiencing an epidemic of anxiety, depression, and loneliness.
Eating out overseas is cheaper.
This is complicated. Obviously, eating out is a lot cheaper for privileged Americans like us in countries like Turkey, where the minimum wage is less than two dollars an hour (USD). You’d be hard pressed to spend more then ten or fifteen dollars on a nice meal out here, including alcohol. You can easily eat for five dollars or less.
Is eating out any cheaper in, say, London or Brussels than in New York or Seattle?
Throughout Europe, it’s typical to find some kind of “prix fixe” meal.
Unlike the “daily special” in America, it’s ridiculously cheap and often a three or four-course meal that you chose from a list options. It also usually involves a drink, even alcohol, and maybe dessert. And there is typically no or a much lower rate of tipping, because workers are paid a living wage and/or live in a country with a strong safety net (at least in Western Europe).
Taxes, if any, are included in the price you see on the menu.
Because there is less tipping, one could argue the service is “worse.” But there is also much less chummy fawning, so I’m perfectly fine with this trade-off.
The whole dining experience seems designed to be more friendly and comfortable, and less about trying to nickel-and-dime you into blowing the bank.
I will simply never ever ever ever ever ever understand how much American restaurants charge for alcohol!
Meanwhile, the rest of world, especially outside of Europe, includes street food, which is everywhere, and cheap enough to be eaten by almost everyone. But it’s a far cry from American “fast food,” because (a) it’s often off-the-charts delicious; (b) is eaten on the street with friends and family, not sitting alone in your car.; and (c) is reasonably or very healthy and prepared from fresh, local ingredients, not premade in some central warehouse.
As Americans, we're novelties.
Overseas, people often want to meet us and get to know us better, because everyone is still fascinated by America.
And for good reason! When America sneezes, the whole world really does catch a cold. People often know more about American politics than they do about their own country’s, and they’re very upfront about why: “What happens in your country’s elections affects us more than our own.”
That said, most people no longer admire America. It’s basically taken for granted that the Trump Years marked a rapid decline in the country. We’re often asked a variation of the question: Do you think it’ll get better, or is America done?
My actual answer? I’m honestly not sure. Our problems are really deep-seated, and I can still see things going either way.
People are better conversationalists.
This one is going to get me in trouble. But I’ve already thoroughly trashed America while romanticizing the hell out of the rest of the world, so I might as well go whole hog.
At dinners back in America, I sometimes felt like I was boring people. And there’s a certain type of person that has always bored me — namely, people whose idea of conversation is taking turns trading bitchy quips and sick burns.
In America, people also talk a lot more about work, because their work is a lot more important to their identity.
For me, “conversation” has always been about connection. And the non-Americans we’ve met so far have generally been pretty good at that kind of thing.
Italians, for example, tend to be great cooks, but they’re even better talkers. My God, the way they engage! Like all truly good talkers, they also know how to listen.
Meanwhile, back in America, when conversations do happen, they have become increasingly fraught. Part of me understands this because, well, Trump. Families have been torn apart — rightfully, I suppose, because I too question whether there’s any valid reason to support a racist, pathological lying sociopath hellbent on destroying American democracy.
But even in Michael’s and my lefty circles, conversations so frequently seemed to break down on — what else? — what to do about Trump (and those who support him).
Connecting with another human being requires a generosity of spirit, an openness and a willingness to engage. For me, nothing kills conversation more than immediately assuming the worst possible motives about the other person, and jumping to the worst possible conclusion.
Unfortunately, the toxic vitriol of social media seems to be spreading out into real life. And the deep and poisonous generational divide — where snark is king and people don’t even try to see things from any point of view other than their own — isn’t helping.
Honestly — and I admit this is a wild generalization — people seem more sophisticated overseas.
All my life, my dad has said, "Americans are very literal-minded. They worship words. That’s why we spend so much time parsing the Bible and the Constitution. Americans are much less interested in abstractions, in ideas. They obsess over and fetishize specific words and miss the larger point."
I never knew what my dad meant until I left America, but now I think he's absolutely right.
I have no idea what I’m talking about.
Look, it’s possible Michael and I have the best of all worlds right now: we’re basically just living the lives of educated urban twentysomethings everywhere (despite being in our fifties), with enough money to be comfortable, and we never stay any place long enough for me to get beyond my romantic early impressions and truly understand these other countries’ frustrations and pathologies.
But hey, nine invitations out in three and a half weeks? It’s still a pretty damn great way to live.
Brent Hartinger is a screenwriter and author, and one half of a couple of traveling gay digital nomads. Visit us at BrentAndMichaelAreGoingPlaces.com, or on Instagram or Twitter.
Reading this post made me exhale a huge 10 second sigh over what's become of the United States (which don't seem very united...just sayin...these days). I returned to the US a few years ago after living in SE Asia and now I fancy myself leaving again for so many of the above reasons. I wanted to add to your essay to say that Americans are terrible conversationalists, in general, because they're deeply self-absorbed. They simply cannot listen or ask a question or take interest in others because they're so lost in social media and they can longer relate to a real, live person face-to-face. And social media is one of the US's brainchildren and it's turned cancerous to this country's social fabric.
We hereby invite you to dinner in Sintra, Portugal (where we just moved after big nomads for five years). We still are nomads at heart, though.